Aristotelian science seeks to define the essential nature of a thing and then to demonstrate the features the thing must have because of that nature. A philosophically inevitable question thus arises for Aristotelians: what is a nature? Is it a really over and above (or perhaps “in”) the things whose nature it is? Is it a mental construction, existingonly in our understanding of things; if so, on what basis is it constructed? This is the medieval problem of universals or at least one way of thinking about the problem. In a classic formulation, Boethius states the problem in terms of the reality of genera and species, two types of universals involved in an Aristotelian definition of essential nature (as in “a human being is a reasoning/speakinganimal,” which places us in the genus of animals and marks off our species by reference to our “difference” from other animals in reasoning or using language): “Plato thinks that genera and species and the rest are not only understood as universals, but also exist and subsist apart from bodies. Aristotle, however, thinks that they are understood as incorporeal and universal, but subsist insensible.” A rigorous tradition of, mainly of Aristotelian, discussion origins from Boethius’s tentative exploration of the problem thus stated. But a more Platonic solution had been put into play about a century before Boethius by Augustine, and these, too, would have a rich development.
EXEMPLARISM REALISM: UNIVERSALS AS DIVINE REASONS.
Augustine did not regard universal natures as mind-independententities, in the way Plato conceived of Forms, but as existing in the divine mind. Accordingly, these natures still serve as model for their singulars, insofar as they are the universal exemplars of creation. In a passage often referred to by medieval authors, Augustine introducers his position in the following manner:
In Latin we can call the Ideas “Forms” or “Species”, in order to appear totranslate word for word. But if we call them “reasons”, we depart to be sure from a proper translation -for reasons are called “logoi”, in Greek not Ideas- but nevertheless, whoever wants to use this word will not be conflict with the fact. For Ideas are certain principal, stable, and immutable forms or reasons of things. They are not themselves formed, and hence they are eternal and always stand inthe same relations, and they are contained in the divine understanding.
Augustine in could fact claim to be reconciling Plato and Aristotle, for, in terms of Boethius’s formulation, he held that universality resided in an understanding, the divine understanding. Nevertheless, this conception can still do justice to the Platonic intuition that what accounts for the necessary, intelligiblefeatures of the ephemeral particulars of the visible world is the presence of some universal exemplars in the source of their being; for, existing in the divine mind, the ideas serve as archetypes of creation, by which God preconceives his creation in eternity Indeed, this also points the way for us to a more certain kind of knowledge than any we can again from sensory experience. As Augustinecontinues:
And although they neither arise nor perish, nevertheless everything that is able to arise and perish, and everything that does arise and perish, is said to be formed in accordance with them. Now it is denied that the soul can look upon them, unless it is a rational one… not each and every rational soul… but [only] the one that is holy and pure… What devout man imbued with true religion, eventhough he is not yet able to see these things, nevertheless dares to deny, or for that matter fails to profess, that all things that exist, that is, whatever things are contained in their own genus with a certain nature of their own, so that they might exist, are begotten by God their author, and that by that same author everything that lives is alive, and that the entire save preservation and...